Karibu. Welcome.

Karibu
By Nora Melendez
March 2, 2017

Welcome. 

In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary it is defined as "to greet hospitably and with courtesy or cordiality" or "to accept with pleasure the occurrence or presence of." It’s a word I thought I knew the meaning of until I took a 30-hour trip around the world to a speck floating along the Indian Ocean named Comoros. 

An aerial shot of the island of Grande Comore.
An aerial shot of the island of Grande Comore.

These islands are known for their ‘karibu’ attitude. Whether you are a stranger or a long-lost best friend, you are always treated like family, welcomed into the fold as if you never belonged elsewhere. It’s an attitude that caught me off guard. 

It surprised me when I first arrived to my host family’s home and was engulfed in a hug and introduced to anyone who stopped by as my host parents' eldest daughter. I thought I knew what hospitality, generosity and a warm welcome were until I stepped foot onto a land I had never even heard of and was proven wrong.

Whether it is water I need or I stumble upon someone eating, the first word uttered in my direction before even hello is "Karibu." I’m welcomed to share meals with people I barely know, to enter homes of complete strangers and to even walk in to their yards and take water from the hose regardless whether they’re home. Here, nothing is yours or mine, it is all ours, and for a girl that grew up in Brooklyn, it’s a complete 180 from the hard edges that make the concrete jungle I know as home. 

It’s taken some adjusting to, some flexibility of the mind to understand just how few boundaries exist when it comes to something as trivial as things. Here, meals are prepared to feed the family, the neighbors and whatever stragglers are left still trying to find their way. "It takes a village" never rang more true.

When I first arrived to site, I ended up in a conversation with a man who by Comorian standards was well traveled. He had spent some time living in Madagascar, South Africa and Paris. Yet when I asked him where he would live if money were never an issue, his response was Comoros. 

Karibu
Comoros

“Here," he said, "there is never an individual struggle. If you are hungry and don’t have enough to eat, you go to your neighbors, if you need somewhere to live you tell the village elders and you will find yourself wrapped in a blanket, tucked into a bed in someone’s home. If you need money to go to school or to fix the roads or to accomplish a project, the village will come together and help you achieve your goals. Whatever it is, whether the help be small or big, there will always be someone besides yourself to help you carry the load.” 

Even the word for "near here" is "karibu." When I asked why, I was told it’s because if someone can walk to you, they should always be welcomed because their struggles are as much yours as they are theirs.

In America, generosity and welcome come at a cost of social grace and an expected reimbursement of whatever was given in the first place. Here, whether I stop by for a visit tomorrow or four months from now, bearing no gifts and a need of something in return, I would never be shunned or turned away. The first word uttered in my direction would be "Karibu" and a smile of thanks would be more then enough to get me through.

Nora Melendez

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